Jewish-American aid worker Alan Gross arrived home to celebrate Chanukah after five years in a Cuban prison, prompting the Jewish world to both celebrate and breathe a collective sigh of relief.
But analysts say Gross’s humanitarian release and the subsequent U.S.-Cuba prisoner swap have little to do with the prisoners and everything to do with the Obama administration’s final two years – and the reverberations might be felt as far away as the Middle East.
“You could say the president was saving face [by renewing diplomacy with Cuba],” said Reese Erlich, who has been covering Cuba as an international affairs journalist since 1968. “The Obama administration had been under a lot of pressure [about Cuba].”
U.S.-Cuba relations, which are being thawed by a loosening of travel and trade restrictions, have been a stitch in America’s side ever since the U.S. put its first embargo on the Caribbean nation in 1960. Each year from its 46th to 60th sessions, the United Nations General Assembly voted to condemn the American commercial, economic, and financial embargo, with only Israel voting against the condemnation.
Now, with two years left in office and a below-average approval rating (according to Gallup), President Obama is “looking for a legacy,” said Washington-based lawyer Robert Muse, who has decades of experience in U.S. laws relating to Cuba.
Muse pointed out that many presidents choose to seek their legacies in the realm of foreign affairs because such moves are met with significantly fewer challenges and constitutional hurdles than those relating to domestic affairs.
In 1972, for example, Richard Nixon was the first president to visit the People’s Republic of China, which at the time the U.S. considered a foe. That visit ended 25 years of estrangement between the two nations. Muse said that though the Watergate scandal forced Nixon to resign the presidency in 1974, he is still credited with the opening to China.
Piero Gleijeses, a professor of U.S. foreign policy at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, attributes rapprochement with Cuba to Obama’s “new lease on life” since the Democrats’ defeat in November’s midterm elections.
Gleijeses said Obama is now making moves he sought to make from the beginning of his presidency, but for which he “didn’t have the political courage” at the time, such as immigration reform.
“I believe Obama came into the presidency with the desire to normalize relations with Cuba, but it seemed too politically costly at home… Now he seems more lively and confident,” said Gleijeses.
Obama’s new attitude, as Gleijeses sees it, may have implications for the U.S. role in the Middle East and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“Will [the Cuba move] also reflect in the Middle East?” Gleijeses asked. “Will Obama now have the courage to stand up to Israel? Obama has made clear on several occasions that he is appalled by Israeli policy in the West Bank. But he has not had the guts to impose sanctions on Israel. Of course, his hands will be somewhat tied by Congress and the pro-Israel lobby, but that might be next.”
Larry Birns, director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs think tank, expressed similar sentiments. He said that when Obama first campaigned for president, he promised the American people he would take action on the long-standing Cuba issue, but until recently had made weak moves.
“[Obama] was becoming increasingly discredited,” Birns said, noting that what comes after this latest maneuver could be “a whole rash of possibilities” –including bold moves in the Middle East.
While running for president in February 2008, Obama told an audience in Cleveland, “There is a strain within the pro-Israel community that says unless you adopt an unwavering pro-Likud approach to Israel, that you’re anti-Israel.”